Saturday, March 31, 2012

Lover and Beloved

In a romance, you could say, there are the lover and the beloved, the active and the passive parts. The Greeks had two words for these roles, and considered them to be very distinct.

It may be common knowledge, but I learned the following from my friend Mac Rogers, a playwright: that to work, a romantic comedy need not have a particularly filled-in or realistic depiction of the beloved. The beloved can be just plausible enough - but the romantic comedy lives or dies by the portrait of the lover being textured and spot-on. The beloved seems marvelous and perfect; we see the beloved through the eyes of the lover. The lover, really, carries the show.

We were discussing Four Weddings and a Funeral.

left to right: gobs of screentime, extended cameo

I hadn't thought of this conversation since, very likely, 1994. But it came to mind the other day when I happened to see this drawing by Rubens:

The principle is evoked in such simple visual terms here! Rubens has depicted with great sensitivity and detail the posture, the gesture, and the gaze of the lover. And the beloved? She's a shaded profile and part of an outline. Just plausible enough... It was so funny, the evocation of Mac's argument about romantic comedies, I thought I should share it with you.

As long as I'm here, I'd like to recommend Mac's current play, Blast Radius, if you're in New York. It's part two of a trilogy involving insectoid aliens invading Earth, but it works as a free-standing play. You will never see a more harrowing depiction of human resistance to monstrous alien bugs. Mac works regularly with the amazing creative team at Gideon Productions, and this show is highly, highly recommended.

I hope you don't mind my using this space to pimp my friends' plays. Seriously, this show is awesome.

Thank you very much.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Too Much Writin', Not Enough Paintin'

One of my favorite fakey ancient-eastern-wisdom stories goes like this. A man, unhappy with his life, is wandering around, seeking a guru who can tell him about enlightenment. One day, this unhappy man is on a muddy road up a mountain, no doubt in Tibet. Peasants are trudging up and down the road, going about their business. Our protagonist spots this one peasant, an older guy, windburned face, crow's feet around the eyes, and so forth, bent under an incredibly heavy load. The unhappy man has a flash of insight and realizes this peasant is actually enlightened, a bodhisattva. He runs up to him and says, "Master, what is enlightenment?" The peasant sets down his load, straightens his back, and smiles. The unhappy man is dazzled by this explanation. Then another question occurs to him.

"Master," he says, "what comes after enlightenment?"

The peasant bends down, picks his load back up, and keeps trudging up the mountain.

I like this story. I have no idea where it comes from. It seems just a liiiiitle too palatable to my western mind to be real. That's OK.

My father had a professor, a wry Jewish pan-educated polyglot, of a generation and character most of whom Hitler made short work of. One time, my father was severely bummed about something, and he went to this professor for advice about what to do. The professor advised a glass of wine, and study.

I believe these two stories are really the same story. The story is this: after a significant disruption - a traumatic experience like enlightenment or severe bummage - it is by means of our productive habits we can find ourselves again.

Obviously, this is not always the solution, and we oughtn't always to revert to prior patterns. But if those patterns were pretty good - why not?

I have had occasion to contemplate these stories over the course of the past couple weeks, which as you can image were rather disruptive. Apart from the intense emotions and unusual events I've described, I've had both a great deal of work to do for my paying job, and a lot of writing to do as a result of my bewilderingly proliferating blogging commitments.

I've been worried I would lose the character of my voice when speaking from atop a taller platform. I've been worried that if too many of my art world ambitions were realized, my narration of art and art-making would leave the realm of the useful and enter the realm of the fantastical. And above all, I've been worried that I was spending too much goddamn time writing, dredging up ideas for writing, and navel-gazing, and not enough time doing the important thing - making artwork.

So it's been with considerable relief that I have had a chance to return, after too long away, to Spring St. lately, and draw some drawings.

the tao of wang

It is good to grapple with the difficulties of anatomy, and of the qualities of light in the skin.

The irreplaceable Claudia, who presents her version of the session here.

And it was with a different kind of relief that I returned to work on the remaining Blue Leah paintings. My schedule had kept me out of the studio for a couple of weeks, which makes my fingers itch for the paint brush. Plunging back into the struggle between idea and paint felt like this:

illustration by the splendid Mark Summers

It actually looked liked this:

But what I wrested from a marathon painting session was this:

Blue Leah 8 (in progress), oil on canvas, 24"x24"

These are all variants on picking the load back up, drinking a glass of wine, and resuming study. They help to restore balance after the tempest of events.

This is not much of an insight, but I hope you'll forgive the format temporarily devolving from a discussion of ideas into an account of events. I remain

Faithfully yours,


Friday, March 16, 2012


I'm having one of the odder weeks in my life so far. This past weekend, I was in San Jose to attend a fairly large film festival called Cinequest. I was attending Cinequest because a script I co-wrote was selected as a top-10 finalist in the screenplay competition. It seemed worth the trouble to my partner and me to show up in person and see what benefits attendance might yield. It turned out to be quite a bit of fun too.

One thing I have always wanted is to get into something that rated having streetlamp flags.

An aside? Goddamn I miss California.

So, as finalists, we were invited to pitch our scripts to a panel of movie people. We then had one of those little strokes of luck which drive people crazy about the film industry: it turned out that one of the movie people on the panel was the director of development at a production company housed inside of one of the major studios, and his company has a standing interest in scripts with our basic premise. They see one every year or so, and it's never quite right. So this exec, who is actually a very personable and soft-spoken guy, asked us to pass along the script so that he can evaluate whether we've cracked the riddle of writing this premise correctly.

Let me save you some suspense. The odds are low. I'll take one last gloat and then move on with the story:

That's me in front of one of those little screens they use for publicity pictures. Neat, right? Also, there were cookies.

Then I got back to New York, and next thing I know I get a very nice email from the arts editor at The Huffington Post asking if I'd like to blog for them. "That Huffington Post?" my friend and about-to-be-employed-rapidly-sprucing-up-my-website-web-designer Emanuele asked. "It seems so," I said. Out of the blue. You know I've got plenty of little art schemes going on at any given time. This was not an outcome of any of them. This just happened.

You people - you've been through a lot with me over the past few years. I've tried to put on a happy face through many troubles, but I feel like I've sometimes been prickly as well. I have a lot of enthusiasm for sharing the things I'm thinking about regarding art and life, and I have always appreciated that you were willing to take time out of your own schedules to hash these thoughts over with me - Ed and Fred, Synamore, Jim, Kevin, Claudia, Jane, McG, Andrew, David, and of course the entire population of Oulu, Finland.

To tell you the truth, I'm not much of a blog reader myself, and have never really looked at The Huffington Post. I don't know precisely how big a deal writing for them is. My hunch is it's kind of a big deal. My de-facto trainers at The Huffington Post have informed me, in no uncertain terms, that I am about to have a cultural klieg light trained on me, and that I am required to establish a presence on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. My leg will not stop twitching, I can't sleep, and my stomach is upset, although that's mostly because I had some questionable celebratory sushi. I don't know if this is a big deal, but it probably isn't a small deal. We spoke recently about how I split my personality into Vincent, who makes the work, and Theo, who interfaces with the world. This feels like a turning point in Theo's life. Theo is open to being wrong about it, and looking like a fool later. But here's what he saw when he woke up this morning:

Given all that, I'd like to discuss institutional validation a bit. Let's call this writing gig a significant bit of institutional validation. Let's also continue to postulate that you too are an artist or otherwise creative person, and that our experiences are in many ways parallel.

I decided I wanted to make movies when I was 13. Between the ages of 13 and 30, I worked on that goal more or less continuously. At that point, I had a slow motion train wreck of a breakdown, and came out of it unwilling to bleed another drop for a medium which did not love me back. Don't get me wrong - I'd be glad to succeed in that field. I just won't bleed for it.

I began to draw seriously in 1998, and to paint seriously in 2004.

If you ever look at my artist's CV, you will see that it begins with a group show at a minor gallery in 2008. There was no institutional validation for my painting before 2008. There was never any institutional validation for my films. I turned 13 in 1988. So I went twenty years between dedicating my life to making art, and receiving any institutional validation at all.

I had a lot of support from my family, friends, and wife. They gave me a lot, much more than I deserved, and it still wasn't enough. It categorically couldn't be enough, because they weren't professionals. Twenty years is a long time to go without validation from the institutions of whatever field you're working in.

I have always spent between 30 and 50 hours a week on whatever medium I was working on, and 20-25% of my annual income, even when it meant going hungry. How did I keep going? Well, I'm fortunate, because I have a downright ridiculous amount of faith in myself and my work. This isn't just some kind of perverse strength of character. You should be so lucky as to have my parents for parents next time around.

But faith has its limits when you are staring down the ugly barrel of middle age, and for the past few years, my faith has flagged, here and there. So I'm fortunate also in being unbelievably stubborn and having a massive caffeine addiction. Being a single-minded speed freak is recommended for a career in the arts.

Be that as it may, I am angry, and I will probably never stop being angry, or whatever anger turns into when it grows old. Rudyard Kipling, unsurprisingly, expresses it better than I can, in his brilliant 1890 novel The Light That Failed.

Dirk Bogarde

In this scene, successful painter Dick Heldar speaks to his friend Maisie:

'Stick to your money, Maisie, for there's nothing more ghastly in the world than poverty in London. It's scared me. By Jove, it put the fear into me! And one oughtn't to be afraid of anything.'

Maisie watched the face working in the moonlight.

'You've plenty of pennies now,' she said soothingly.

'I shall never have enough,' he began, with vicious emphasis. Then, laughing, 'I shall always be threepence short in my accounts.'

'Why threepence?'

'I carried a man's bag once from Liverpool Street Station to Blackfriar's Bridge. It was a sixpenny job,—you needn't laugh; indeed it was,—and I wanted the money desperately. He only gave me threepence; and he hadn't even the decency to pay in silver. Whatever money I make, I shall never get that odd threepence out of the world.'

This was not language befitting the man who had preached of the sanctity of work.

No it isn't, but it's true. Vincent has never flickered, never failed - but I am not always in touch with Vincent. Short of institutional validation, one's ability to reach to Vincent can waver. The threepence is institutional validation when one first needs it. I didn't get it, and now I never can.

There is only so long one can go on, alone, convinced that one is right despite the entirety of humanity stating not opposition, but complete indifference. The maximum length that lonely interval can be sustained, I expect, is different for each of us, and I'm not sure if it's a curse or a blessing if you can sustain it your entire life. After all, you might be wrong. You might be a fifty-year-old actor, living on Cahuenga and sending out headshots. I might be wrong too.

So what I'm saying is that it is possible to make good work, even great work, in complete isolation from colleagues and institutions in the field. But it is hard, and it gets harder as time throws the finite duration of life into ever starker relief. It is easier to do good work with the support of one's fellow man. That's petty, but there it is.

I feel fortunate, very, very fortunate, that the tide seems finally to be starting to turn for me. I feel fortunate, not deserving, because as surely as I have been working alone, a thousand other people, as convinced of their rectitude as I, are right now working alone, and struggling similarly to maintain their faith and go on working. I have had my life changed, at least somewhat, by a single decision by a single well-placed individual; but I am marked by my twenty years, and I won't soon forget where I was - where I might still be - and where I could easily return if I'm not there now.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Arid and the Fertile

I've been meaning to share an interesting observation (of myself) which I made a few weeks ago. This was right after I got done writing the Damien Hirst post, which was rather a lot of work.

Many of you - at least the ones commenting - started reading me toward the very beginning of this blog, when we spent our time talking about Caravaggio and Rubens, and there was an abundance of humanism to be found. Around New Year's this year, I did swear a vow to you to engage in a more responsible and serious way with the art that's being made now. And next thing you know we find ourselves in a long discussion of Hirst's work as a formal system.

I'm not saying this is a worthless preoccupation. But it's awfully arid stuff, isn't it? It's a parched landscape. After all, we turned to art to nourish our souls, and here, we've spent hours and hours analyzing those spots, and what have we got to show for it? Ideas relevant to information theory - a meal of sand.

That was how I felt when I got done, anyway: thirsty, because I hadn't gotten what I need from art, and sickened, because I'd spent all this time perversely eating sand.

It just so happens that that very evening, I went to Spring Street Studio, my life-drawing haunt, to draw. And I had one of those revelations one has now and then. The model was Kate, who does not model frequently, and whom I have painted a few times:

Winter, oil on canvas, 40"x30", 2009

Kate's beautiful, but everybody's beautiful, so that's not what makes her interesting. One thing that makes her interesting - from my incomplete Bressonian perspective - is that, like mine, her personality appears to have a broad non-physical sector. Which is to say, a great deal of her sentience is occupied entirely with mentation, both reasoning and imagination. We all have this, but some of us have it more than others. It has always seemed to me pronounced in Kate.

This tendency converts physicality into an antagonistic force. I do not mean the flesh is the enemy, but rather that it acts in dramatic counterpoint to our ordinary understanding of the person. There is a shock, a transition, between "let us discuss critical theory" and "look what I can do with my arm." In many models, physicality and mentation act in concert, because modeling attracts people with a high degree of mind-body unity. In Kate, mentation is an independent primary process, a first personality. She has sentience as a corporeal entity, but it represents a second personality, and not an application of the first one. Or so it seems to me.

In real life, we would call this the Sexy Librarian Effect. But this is not real life, it's art, so it means something different; parallel, but different. What it means here is that Kate, modeling, strongly recalls the idea that be our thinking never so icily seraphic in its soaring majesty, we human entities are stuck inside of animals, bloody animals with hairs, and pores that sweat. This is presented, as a topic of meditation, and we make of it what we will: you might call it glorious, or tragic, or say that recognizing it is a step toward serenity.

It was a stroke of providence that Kate was modeling when I showed up at Spring Street, parched by my encounter with Hirst. As models tend to have high body-wide physical sentience, so I have a complimentary physical sentience, that of the eye and hand. Normally, I slip effortlessly into this zero-verbal zone. But confronted with Kate, her own disjunction opens a disjunction in the artist. When she goes from chatting to modeling, she passes through a gate, and the artist also passes through a gate, and notices the gate.

Resuming drawing Kate, I noticeably left the zone of thinking about formal logic. Thinking about formal logic is all that Hirst has to offer, and it is not nearly enough. A more cartesian monk than Hirst you never met: it is not a matter of industrial efficiency alone that he does not touch his own work, and that when he does, he fails. He is an ideas man. This is a part of art-making, but I don't think it should be all of art-making. Not for me, at least.

Drawing Kate was an experience of leaving the arid landscape of non-physical art, the desert of Hirstism, and returning to the fertile land, the fruited plain, of figurative art. Here were the rivers and oceans of light, the formfulness, the living breath that raises the ribs from the flesh, and hides them again, the minute vibrations of the fast-twitch muscle fibers, the sweat that shines as it runs down the gulley of the spine. These are the visible signs by means of which we recognize our empathy with the soul that is immured in the flesh, and our empathy with the flesh as well - it is not glorious or tragic, but both - it has such might, and pleasure, and vulnerability - and it lasts only a little while, then it goes down into the vast night of things.

Our art may circle the universe, but it returns to the face and the body, because that is where it begins, and where we begin, and we will die of thirst without them. Not to mention that we have a downright ridiculous amount of neurological hardware devoted to them, so we're not optimizing the use of our own cognitive architecture when we go too long without the figure in our art.

I don't have a very good picture of my favorite drawing of Kate from that particular session. It's not a very good drawing either - Kate is actually remarkably hard to draw because the proportions of her features are extremely unusual. Here's what I've got:

The reason I only have this picture is because as soon as I did the drawing, I handed it off to the appropriately-named Minerva. Minerva runs Spring Street, and I was past the deadline for giving her something for the 20th anniversary show she was hanging at the studio:

She collected 270 drawings from the artists - professionals, amateurs, and hobbyists alike - who draw and have drawn there over the many years she has sustained Spring Street Studio, one of the great underground institutions of New York City.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Second Order Dominique Sanda Problem

You know my big painting of Leah's butt, right?

Blue Leah #6, 2011, oil on canvas, 48"x36"

So Leah dropped by my open studio the other evening, near the end of the night. Here's a picture we wound up taking:

looking at it now - jesus, my forehead is like the size of her whole face

The picture we didn't take, because Leah, after striking the pose, was too embarrassed to hold it, was her demonstratively pointing at the big butt painting, and her own butt, to clarify that this big painting of a butt represents, in point of fact, her butt.

This comical gesture on her part brought into sudden clarity an issue which has been brewing for me, which I would call the Dominique Sanda problem. Some of you will recognize the name Dominique Sanda, but almost none of you will remember her first film - Robert Bresson's A Gentle Woman (1969).

Robert Bresson was a minimalist French director who tended to work with non-actors, the better to produce flat affect in the performances of his "models" - his own idiosyncratic term for the people in his films. Apart from directing a few really riveting movies, he wrote a rather philosophical and epigrammatic book, Notes on Cinematography, which I would recommend to any artist.

Having just looked it up, I find that the plot of A Gentle Woman is a series of flashbacks explaining the suicide of the lead, played by Sanda. I saw this movie years ago, and had no recollection at all of the plot. What I do recall is that Bresson got a Bressonian performance out of Sanda: quiet, depressive, and almost completely expressionless.

As he did with all his "models," he photographed her so slowly, and so obsessively, that the microscopic variations and progression of her state of soul emerged. I used to think this cinematographic procedure was akin to the stony beach emerging as the tide recedes, but now I think it is rather more like a salt flat forming as a lake evaporates: something is revealed, but in a condensate form. The procedure concentrates it, amplifies it, until it is unbearably intense. The method is not only a means of observation, but also of aestheticization.

You are unlikely to remember Dominique Sanda in A Gentle Woman for two main reasons. The first is that it is actually a bit of a snooze. Bresson at his best is tough to watch, and this is not his best. The second is that Sanda's performance in this movie is jarringly at odds with virtually everything else she ever did.

If you know Sanda, you most likely remember her famous roles in The Conformist and The Garden of the Finzi Continis.

Here she is in The Conformist:

Here she is in The Garden of the Finzi Continis:

What is partly apparent in these stills, and fully apparent in the films, is that she is most natural playing a smart and vivacious woman, full of life and mischief (and highly sexual); and not playing a limp haddock, as she does in Bresson's movie.

However, Bresson's movie does not lie about her. Although his method involves the aesthetic, it is so microscopic as to make falsehood impossible. Unlike the ordinary photography of acting, Bresson's method is so minute, so stripped-down, that the actor cannot put into the performance anything that does not exist in her as a human being. Only what is present can be shown.

But Bresson does not tell the whole truth either. He photographs a narrow slice of her personality. If she had never made another movie, we would have only this record of her work, and we would think of her as dour and ascetic, like all Bresson's "models." But she happened to have a career, and thus we find that, while Bresson caught one thing about her, he did not catch the thing which was, relative to her as an individual, the most dominant, the most expressive, and the most important.

He caught the truth. For him, it was the great truth. For Dominique Sanda, it was the least truth.

This is a problem. Bresson can only see what he is able to see. He is inflexible and domineering. His region of overlap with his models extends only to the boundary of his unchanged personality. He sees Dominique Sanda as profoundly as anyone will ever see her, but he remains blind to most of her.


I don't know how it is for you, but my studio is in a building of artist studios, and only three or four of us do figurative paintings. In fact, we are all in the same corner of the top floor and suspect that our eccentric art-loving landlord is quietly forming a figurative-painter ghetto up here. My own studio is closest to the main thoroughfare of the bewilderingly mazelike top floor. When there's an open studio, and all the artists invite the public to come in and have a look, my studio is the first figurative studio visitors reach after four floors of the abstract, the crafty, and the poppy. These conditions make me look like a magician, because while many people harbor a secret suspicion that they could make abstract paintings, crafts, and pop art, most everybody agrees that painting the figure is hard as hell.

So I get a lot of compliments, but the compliments are the kinds of compliments that you would expect under those conditions. They are along the lines of, "You're so good at this."

Until this self-same open studio where Leah showed up at the end and pointed comically at her butt. This time, there was a change in the tenor of the remarks. Gone were the "You paint so beautifully" and "It could be a photograph" types of comments. The almost uniform response this time was - "These have so much soul" - "These show a person."

Up until the open studio, this was my entire goal in figurative painting. I never - or not for long anyway - wanted to paint beautifully. Beautiful painting is a scaffold, a tool. It is the bones and sinews. It is not the purpose of painting; the purpose of painting, for me, is to reach toward soul. And to hear this evaluation of soulfulness, unprompted, from a random sample of strangers, triggered a very gratifying release of endorphins.

Then Leah came by, and comically pointed at her butt.

...and the second order Dominique Sanda problem abruptly clarified, and I realized that I've turned into Robert Bresson.

I have a monastic streak a mile wide. The first light I tend to see things in is the Last Light. And I tend to insist on this with my models as well: however you dress, choose friends, spend time, laugh - we'll get rid of all that - there is a core, a base, there is a forever part of you, a part that is still, and mighty - it was here before you were born, and it will go on after you die - today we are going to search for that part.

But this is not the entire truth. Even if the entire truth is ultimately irretrievable, this is less than the amount of truth it is possible to retrieve.

Leah is a smart, funny young woman leading a life of mayhem and adventure. Blue Leah tells one part of her story: the overlap of one part of her with one part of me.

I don't think my crime is so great as Bresson's, although that is for Leah to say. But it is of the same category. It is no accident that my frame, and Bresson's, look similar:

This is the classic frame of the transcendental filmmaker. It is the meditation-on-the-face frame. In ordinary filmmaking, it is highly unstable, because people in ordinary films move. In transcendental films, they stand still, as they do in paintings. The microscopic tremors of the soul reveal themselves in this frame, which captures the moment that expands to an eternity, just as paintings nest an eternity in the moment of the image.

I do not repudiate the Blue Leah paintings; contrarily, I think they are some of the best work I have done so far. I reached into my guts to paint what was there, and Leah, with the generosity and skill of the utterly committed professional model did the same. But I do see them now as more partial, more slanted, than I did before.

Casting my thoughts back over art history, I see instances of the Dominique Sanda problem everywhere. All of Rembrandt's people are melancholy and reflective; Da Vinci's nearly smile with their illuminated knowledge. Gentilesci's people are furious, and Hals's will all wake up with hangovers. Instances abound.

Whether or not the problem is universal, having recognized it, what kind of a tool would I be if I failed to address it?

Here's what I think - I think that I have developed a strong ability to see, but a certain complacency in what I'm looking for. I think I'm allowing my own character too much say in my work. My boundaries are too hard, my figures too uniform. Certainly there is a place for my character in my work, but I would like to bend more, expand more, I would like to fit the world in me.

Having recognized, not just personally, but through the eye of Vincent, that comedy which is so much a part of Leah, not forever perhaps, but for now - I'm going to see if I can't do something about that in my work. I have ideas already (I always have ideas already).

I am full of excitement and hope.

If I can wish you one thing in your own work, my friends, it is the willingness to be humiliated. Even when you're right, life is so large that you're probably wrong as well. Continuing to be right is the path of decline, of senility. But recognizing that you are wrong - this is the flash of insight, the start of new things.